Paris riots show difficulty of fighting warming with taxes

FILE - In this Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2018 file photo, demonstrators stand at a makeshift barricade set up by the "yellow jackets" protesters to block the entrance of a fuel depot in Le Mans, western France. Even proponents of carbon taxes acknowledge that an increase in fuel taxes can disproportionally hurt low-income people. Energy costs make up a larger portion of their overall expenses, so a fuel price increase eats up more of their paycheck and leaves with less to spend. (AP Photo/David Vincent)

PARIS (AP) — The “yellow vests” in France are worrying greens around the world.

The worst riots in Paris in decades were sparked by higher fuel taxes, and French President Emmanuel Macron responded by scrapping them Wednesday. But taxes on fossil fuels are just what international climate negotiators, meeting in Poland this week, say are desperately needed to help wean the world off of fossil fuels and slow climate change.

“The events of the last few days in Paris have made me regard the challenges as even greater than I thought earlier,” said Stanford University environmental economist Lawrence Goulder, author of the book “Confronting the Climate Challenge.”

Economists, policymakers and politicians have long said the best way to fight climate change is to put a higher price on the fuels that are causing it — gasoline, diesel, coal and natural gas. Taxing fuels and electricity could help pay for the damage they cause, encourage people to use less, and make it easier for cleaner alternatives and fuel-saving technologies to compete.

These so-called carbon taxes are expected to be a major part of pushing the world to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and try to prevent runaway climate change that economists say would be far more expensive over the long term than paying more for energy in the short term.

But it’s not so easy for people to think about long-term, global problems when they are struggling to get by.

Macron said the higher tax was his way of trying to prevent the end of the world. But the yellow vest protesters turned that around with the slogan: “it’s hard to talk about the end of the world while we are talking about the end of the month.”

The resistance to the fuel tax is a personal blow to Macron, who sees himself as the guarantor of the 2015 Paris climate accord, its strongest defender on the global stage. He has positioned himself as the anti-Trump when it comes to climate issues.

The French government quietly fears a Trump-led backlash against the accord could spread to other major economies whose commitment is essential to keeping the deal together.

The fuel tax was not originally Macron’s idea; it dates back to previous administrations. But he vigorously defended it and won the presidency in part on a promise to fight climate change.

So what went wrong?

Yale University economist William Nordhaus, who won this year’s Nobel prize for economics, said the tax was poorly designed and was delivered by the wrong person. “If you want to make energy taxes unpopular, step one is to be an unpopular leader,” he said. “Step two is to use gasoline taxes and call them carbon taxes. This is hard enough without adding poor design.”